Everything old is new again. The Nikon Df might be the latest and most hotly debated, but Fujifilm, Olympus and other manufacturers are clamoring to inject a little vintage nostalgia into their digital innovations. But instead of rushing out to buy the hot new old thing, let me propose that when it comes to getting back to the basics of photography, absolutely nothing is better than the real thing. In this post, I’ll share just a few of my impressions and top lessons learned from a year-long adventure with film photography.
Like many passionate amateur and professional photographers, I am prone to intrusive doubts about the continued adequacy of my camera gear. Early last year, these doubts came rushing in as I realized my trusty Nikon D700 was more than four years old. “It’s ancient!”, “The shutter will die any day now!”, “Image quality has made quantum leaps since 2009!”, and of course “I’m due for an upgrade!” Partially inspired by the steep price of the only logical replacement, a D4, I decided to turn against the “rational” upgrade flow and embrace supposed obsolescence head-on. That’s when it occurred to me that the camera I inherited from my grandfather and now sitting on a shelf gathering dust, could be much more than just a nifty piece of retro memorabilia. Not so much to replace the D700, but to at least put those gear-acquisition gremlins to rest for a little while.
Lesson #1 – Film of all sorts is still being made, and labs still process it.
When telling people who I’ve started shooting film, fellow photographers and friends alike almost invariably seem perplexed. Even if people remember shooting film themselves at some point, most have slowly accepted that film just isn’t available anymore, and that there are no labs to get film processed at. Not so. Yes, big film players like Kodak and Fujifilm have discontinued many of their traditional films and you won’t find many of those iconic Fotomat (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/roadsidepictures/59812776/) drive-through booths in your local box-store parking lot. But there are lots of different and interesting film emulsions out there, and most cities have a lab or two that still practice the arcane art of film development.
My early experiments with my grandfather’s camera, a late 1940s Ansco Color Clipper, were a revelation. The Color Clipper not only doesn’t have a light meter, but also lacks almost any controls that you’d expect to adjust in order to dial in a correct exposure or focus. But the camera takes medium format 120 film, which has two distinct characteristics that help when working with such rudimentary equipment.
Lesson #2 – Most film, particularly medium format film, has wonderful dynamic range and forgiving exposure latitude.
My first shots with the Color Clipper were exercises in faith. The camera has an all-metal body, but not in the hefty reassuring kind of way. It looks, feels and sounds like an empty tin lunch box with a little bottle cap-sized lens grafted to it, and a simple “color/b&w” rocker that adjusts the aperture slightly from one mystery f-stop to another. Standing on Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge and looking over Sunset Beach, the absence of controls and feedback from the camera felt bizarre compared to the infinite buttons, knobs and menu settings of my digital cameras. The camera and the film were saying to me “Nothing for you to do here. Trust us, we’ve got this”. And so I pushed down on the shutter for what seemed like an eternity, until I heard a gentle *plink* somewhere in that tin box.
Instead of worrying about histograms and whether I’d clipped any highlights or shadows, the Fuji Pro400h film simply took the whole scene in and rendered it beautifully with its characteristic pastel tones. The image presented here is a quick low-resolution scan provided by my lab, aka “The Lab” (www.thelabvancouver.com), but I can see detail in the shadows on the rocks and in the highlights on the buildings. And somehow, quite magically, the unknown and immutable shutter speed and aperture combination were just fine for the ISO 400 film. Whoa. I officially had the bug.
Lesson #3 – No excuses. Film cameras are abundant, very cheap or even free – so get out there and have fun.
I brought my new favourite camera with me on a vacation to Krakow, Poland in May. I was eager to see what the Color Clipper could do with the beautiful old town and historic Kazimierz district, but also curious to see what photography treasures might be found in this former Eastern Bloc country. I stumbled across several old camera stores, packed to the rafters with Leica and Contax knock-offs produced by the likes of Zorki, Fed and Kiev. These former Soviet Union manufacturers are little-known in the west, but were produced in the millions and dominated the 35mm mid-20th century photographic landscape in the USSR with their mass-produced approximations of much more expensive German counterparts. After much window-shopping I finally picked up two cameras that caught my eye – a 1965 Zorki 4 rangefinder and an East German 1957 Altissa Altix-N. Both were had for the princely total of 90 Polish Zloty, or about $15 Canadian per camera.
Once friends and family learned about my growing interest in film, I started to hear more and more stories about how they, or their mother, or their uncle, used to shoot film and absolutely loved it. And oh yeah – there was this interesting little camera that they had, and it just might be around here somewhere. Before long, my film cameras had gained several newly donated shelf-mates and what was an experiment has now grown into a mini-collection. That’s not to say that I’m entirely blameless in this process, but if you’re wondering where to pick up your first film camera, you’d be surprised how quickly they come to you when word gets out. And yes, Sean, I’ll be returning that Pentax ME you asked me to “check out” ASAP, I swear!
Lesson #4 – Old cameras need TLC.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but as wonderful as cheap/free cameras are, it’s almost unavoidable that decades-old gear will need some repairs. While those former Soviet gems may have been ingenious in their design, they are not exactly known for their reliability. These non-electronic, non-digital cameras are relatively simple to operate, but their inner workings are filled with sprockets and springs, much like old mechanical watches or clocks, and they need adjustment every decade or two. And just where do you think you’re going to find parts or someone who knows what they’re doing with that 60-year-old Copal leaf shutter? Unless you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and have the hands of a surgeon, or happen to know a good repair technician, this is the point where many cameras make the sad transition to being strictly ornamental. Fortunately, when the shutter on my Altix-N began seizing up suddenly, I managed to find a gem of a local technician in Horst Wenzel.
With no yellow pages listing or website, I found Mr. Wenzel almost by accident. When I mentioned my Altix at the film counter of my favourite photography shop, Beau Photo, a torn piece of white paper with his number was passed to me in knowing silence and with it, renewed hope. Brought back to life, the repaired Altix remains one of my favourite film cameras to shoot with, and yet it presents many challenges.
Lesson #5 – Bare-bones film cameras offer the best learning opportunities.
The Altix-N is light years ahead of the Color Clipper, but it is still a very rudimentary shooting experience. It is a manual-only camera, so you have to set the aperture, shutter speed and focus yourself, and there is no internal meter to help you make those decisions.
It has a viewfinder, but no way to confirm focus or composition as there is no rangefinder, which the Zorki has, and no view through the lens, which any modern SLR would provide. The viewfinder itself is also ridiculously tiny, further complicating the framing challenge, especially as I wear glasses and have to peek through it at a distance.
Listen to anyone who shoots film, and it’s almost an inevitable cliché to hear “it’s great how only having 36 frames really slows you down”, but even more than that, the beautiful thing is how those other ‘nuisances’ force you to internalize and understand the calculations that you normally outsource to your DSLR. You learn to estimate and adjust exposure based on the good old “sunny 16” rule (in bright sunlight, shutter speed should be 1 over your film’s ISO speed at f16), and get reasonably accurate in guessing how far away objects are, or quickly learn to use hyperfocal distance to focus, like Henri Cartier-Bresson did. And the inevitable glitches and mistakes are only opportunities to learn just went wrong, either with the camera or your own calculations.
Forcing myself to get comfortable with what might otherwise be overwhelming concepts and calculations only piqued my curiosity further, and I’ve now started spending time in the darkroom, developing my own film and making my own prints. None of this is to argue that film photography is absolutely ‘better’ than digital, but I’ve definitely found that side-stepping of the digital upgrade carousel has helped me become a more involved, conscious participant in the process of creating images.
Do you still shoot with an old film camera? Leave a comment below to let us know what you’re using and what your favorite film is.